Driving Dixie Down: Stoneman’s Raid breaks out of the mountains – March 21-29, 1865

I think anyone who has spun the AM radio dial during a long night drive will find Virgil Caine a familiar name:

For many of us growing up in the 1970s, that was largest dosage of Civil War history outside the class room.   (Yes… I know the song was released in 1969.  Do I lose cool points for admitting a fondness for the Joan Baez cover? )

Those of us with a fine appreciation for historical details might quibble over the accuracy of the lyrics.  But such is the way of poets and songwriters, as they ply their craft.  Any rate, in those opening lines, Robbie Robertson and Levon Helm laid out the name we need to follow – Major-General George Stoneman.

Stoneman was the quintessential “old cavalryman.”  But he had a lackluster wartime record by the winter of 1865.  Two spectacular failed raids were at the top of his resume.  The assignment to lead a raid out of East Tennessee into North Carolina was for all practical purposes Stoneman’s last opportunity for redemption.  The objective of this raid evolved with time.  Early in the winter, Major-General William T. Sherman simply suggested a diversionary raid into western North Carolina to detract both from Sherman’s planned advance into South Carolina and, at Sherman’s urgings, an infantry advance by Major-General George Thomas into Alabama.  Lieutenant-General Ulysses S. Grant opted to refine that scope somewhat, with an objective of the railroad behind Columbia, South Carolina, to directly contribute to Sherman’s advance.  (And there’s a “what if” to ponder.)

But those plans were overtaken by events.  Stoneman could not get his force organized for movement prior to the middle of March.  Just the logistics of getting troops, horses, and supplies in the right place delayed the start.  Further disrupting the launch, the same rains which pinned Sherman’s march from the Catawba to the Cape Fear Rivers served to likewise hinder Stoneman’s preparations.   By the time Stoneman was ready to start, his objectives were refined to the railroad between Christansburg and Lynchburg, in Virginia, with a threat to Danville.  Such would cut off Richmond from raw materials – particularly salt and other minerals – in Southwest Virginina.  I would submit no other major operation in the Civil War had such swings in objectives before the first movement.  Coming this late in the war, this was as much a raid of “because we can.”

Stoneman’s command for this raid was officially the District of East Tennessee.  The main striking arm was a cavalry division under Brigadier-General Alvan Gillem.

Short version of his biography – Gillem was a East Tennessee unionist with personal connections right up to the Vice-President.  Gillem’s division consisted of three brigades with a supporting battery of artillery:

  • 1st Brigade, Colonel William Palmer, with the 10th Michigan, 12th Ohio, and 15th Pennsylvania Cavalry.
  • 2nd Brigade, Brigadier-General Simeon Brown, with the 11th Michigan and 11th and 12th Kentucky.
  • 3rd Brigade, Colonel John Miller, with the 8th, 9th, and 13th Tennessee Cavalry.
  • Battery E, 1st Tennessee Light Artillery, Lieutenant James Regan.

All told, Gillem had around 4,000 men.

Backing up Gillem’s cavalry, a column of infantry and artillery under Brigadier-General Davis Tillson would move to secure the passes over the mountains and repair railroads through which the column would be resupplied.  Tillson’s command consisted of two brigades and seven artillery batteries, numbering around 4,500 men.  Of note, Tillson’s command contained the 1st US Colored Heavy Artillery, serving as infantry, and several formations of Tennessee and North Carolina unionists.

Logistics and weather finally permitted the raid to get underway on March 21, aptly as the battle of Bentonville was winding down.  While I don’t have space, nor the grounding, to cover this raid in the detail provided for Sherman’s Marches, I would offer a view of Stoneman’s Raid from a high level so that readers might appreciate the movements within the context of other events 150 years ago.  To wrap up this, the first in a series on the raid, let me cover the first nine days of movement, to bring us up to March 29, 1865.


Oh… big map again… I’ll have that on sale at the gift shop if you’d like…. OK, let me break that into three phases so it is easier to sort out.  And please not these are not precise as to all the roads and camps used by the raiders.


The initial movement out of Knoxville stepped out, as mentioned, on March 21.  The cavalry lead the column, followed by Tillson’s infantry which repaired the railroad as they moved.  The column moved along the Tennessee & Virginia Railroad to Strawberry Plains, Morristown to reach Bull’s Gap in Bays Mountain on March 24.


At Bull’s Gap, Stoneman received word of Confederate forces occupying Jonesborough along his intended line of march.  To counter that force and maneuver them out of place, Stoneman dispatched Miller’s Brigade on a northern course towards the Holston River, with orders to get behind the Confederate position somewhere south of Carter’s Depot. The remainder of Gillem’s force went directly towards Jonesborough.  Tillson’s infantry followed up the railroad line.  The move had the intended effect.  After some light skirmishing, the Confederates fell back in the direction of Bristol, Tennessee.  On March 26, the cavalry columns were beyond Jonesborough near Elizabethton, while Tilson’s infantry camped a day’s march from Greenville on the rail lines.  Tilson would remain in that area for three days before disbursing his forces further east.


Stoneman made a treacherous crossing, with some of his men moving at night, over Stone Mountain to cross into North Carolina on March 27. Hearing of a gathering of North Carolina guards, Stoneman dispatched Major Myles Keogh in command of a detachment from the 12th Kentucky Volunteer Cavalry to Boone. Keogh “surprised and routed the rebels, killing 9 and capturing 68″ after entering town around 10 a.m. on March 28.

Reporting from Boone that day, Stoneman told Thomas of his success thus far into the raid, but determined to alter his plans.   “I shall be compelled to alter slightly from the proposed route on account of the great scarcity of forage and subsistence for the men.”  Instead of moving up the New River Valley from Boone, Stoneman preferred to move across the Blue Ridge and strike Wilkesborough.  The Yadkin River Valley offered much better grazing for his horses.

Stoneman, who loved to divide his forces for these movements, did so again when leaving Boone in two columns starting mid-day on the 28th.  Brown’s Brigade, with Miller’s following, moved through Watuga Gap, passing Blowing Rock, and down to the headwaters of the Yadkin River.  That force came across Patterson’s Factory at the foot of the mountains.  Before leaving, the Federals destroyed the yarn factory.  This column continued towards Wilkesborough on the south side of the Yadkin on March 29th.

Palmer’s Brigade reached Deep Gap on the evening of the 28th, then crossed over the Blue Ridge. The next morning, Palmer’s three regiments descended upon Wilkesborough on the 29th.  There the 12th Ohio Cavalry overwhelmed a small home guard force to take possession of the town.

Again, I’m working at a “quick” pace through Stoneman’s Raid. There are certainly fine points I’m skipping with an accelerated discussion of events.  Stoneman’s Raid, 1865, by Chris Hartley is among the recent book-length treatments of the subject, and which I’d recommend.  Much of my appreciation for the campaign was gained by running around photographing historical markers.  Speaking of which, North Carolina has several which relate to the events mentioned in this post – Boone, Blowing Rock, Patterson’s Mill, Deep Gap, and Wilkesboro.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 49, Part I, Serial 103, pages 330-1; Part II, Serial 104, page 112.)

End of March 1865 – Lee’s Confederacy, where the war would be decided

General Robert E. Lee spent his first winter in command of the Army of Northern Virginia confronting the Federals along the Rappahannock River.  For support, in theory if not in very efficient practice, he could call upon the resources of the Confederacy from as far away as Mississippi, if not beyond to the Rio Grande.

During Lee’s second winter in command of the Army of Northern Virginia, he could still call upon support from places as far away as Alabama, Florida, or, even parts of Mississippi.  Responding to Lieutenant-General Ulysses S. Grant’s Overland Campaign, Lee drew troops from South Carolina, North Carolina, and Tennessee (where Lieutenant-General James Longstreet had wintered).  Most importantly, Lee could still draw resources from large areas of Virginia, to include much of the Shenandoah Valley.

Just a few weeks into the winter of 1865, Lee was promoted to command of all the Confederate armies.  More than at any other time in the war, Lee needed strategic mobility to concentrate combat power and supplies to meet the needs at the front.  However, given the pace at which Federal operations came in March and April 1865, realistically Lee could only plan to wield resources (manpower, material, or supplies) that were close to railroad depots.  A day or two for rail transportation was cutting things close. Anything more than a few days march or wagon ride from a working (stress working) railroad was out of Lee’s reach, and thus of little help.  Not to diminish the activities that took place in that time period in other theaters, but for Lee’s needs those Confederate forces may as well been in Siberia than Texas or Alabama.

So what did Lee’s reach look like at the end of March?  Here’s my rough depiction:


The rose-colored section is that reach.  You see that just past the South Carolina line, Sherman had destroyed the infrastructure.  Not to say that troops or supplies from South Carolina were inaccessible.  Rather that would be a question of time and effort.  Neither of which the Confederacy had in abundance.  The one remaining transportation artery was a triangle of railroads connecting Richmond-Petersburg with Raleigh and Charlotte, with key junctures at Salisbury, Greensboro, and Danville.  And no seaports.

And the situation was bound to get worse into April.  I’ve depicted one of the next “blows” to fall 150 years ago this week on the left side of the map – Major-General George Stoneman’s raid out of Tennessee, which would disrupt the already teetering transportation system.  Only a matter of days before the major forces started moving on the other side of the map.

As the month of March 1865 came to a close, Lee’s reach, and thus ability to react to those Federal advances, was severely limited.  In more ways than one, Lee’s actions would decide the fate of the Confederacy, determine how the Civil War would close, and, if we step up to the big podium, decide several important questions about the future of the United States as things sat in 1865.  All of that would play out within the rose-colored section labeled “Lee’s Confederacy.”

At the start of the war, the seceded states included over/around 775,000 square miles across eleven states.  For all practical purposes, at the close of March 1865, Lee’s Confederacy was just 40,000 square miles, mostly in two states.

General Lee on desertions: “… the number is very large, and gives rise to painful apprehensions as to the future.”

On March 27, 1865, General Robert E. Lee sent a report to the Secretary of War, John C. Breckinridge.  The report addressed a vital, but always sensitive topic for any army – desertions:

I have the honor to report as the number of desertions from the 9th to the 18th, both inclusive, 1,061. This embraces full reports from the infantry, but only partial reports from the artillery and cavalry, which would increase the number considerably. The largest number of desertions was from the First Corps, General Longstreet’s, Pickett’s division having lost 512 men while moving recently. I hope that some of his men only availed themselves of the opportunity to visit their homes and will return. But the number is very large, and gives rise to painful apprehensions as to the future. I do not know what can be done to put a stop to it. …

1,000 desertions in ten days was a serious loss from the rolls.  At that rate, the Army of Northern Virginia and other forces defending Richmond and Petersburg would simply wither away regardless of any effort by the Federals. Though Lee did explain the high desertion rate noting the preponderance of numbers from one division.  He saw it as aberration. Or perhaps more accurately, he hoped it was an aberration.

The mention of Major-General George Pickett’s division brings to mind the oft used prop that desertions came more so from the ranks of the deep south, which had been most affected by the recent Federal campaigns.  Pickett’s division was all Virginian.

Lee continued with a breakdown of what he saw as contributing causes… and as a good leader will, offer solutions:

General Longstreet reports that many of the Georgia troops have deserted to join local commands authorized to be raised in that State, and that they are encouraged to do so by the officers of those commands. He mentions particularly, on the report of Brig. Gen. G. T. Anderson, the case of a Captain Hardee, formerly of the Ninth Georgia Regiment in Anderson’s brigade, who was retired on account of a wound and received authority to raise a command of light-duty men and persons not liable to conscription, for the purpose of arresting deserters in Brooks County, Ga. I inclose the papers that you may see the whole case. I have always opposed granting such authority, for the reason that it causes desertion from the regular service. I recommend that all such authorizations be revoked and that measures be taken to bring officers who have been guilty of such conduct to justice. It has been one of the greatest evils of the service since the beginning of the war, and has caused the loss of a much greater number of men than have ever been brought into service by means of such special organizations.

The two enclosures mentioned by Lee were reports from Lieutenant-General James Longstreet and Brigadier-General George T. Anderson.  Lee had summarized Longstreet’s observations about recruiting practices in his report.  So I’ll not repeat them here.  Anderson named names in his report:

I believe that some at least of the officers who have received permission to raise companies of disabled men and non-conscripts, are abusing their authority and offering inducements to our soldiers to desert, make their way home, and join their companies. From all the evidence in my possession, I fully believe Capt. T. J. Hardee, formerly of the Ninth Georgia Regiment Infantry, now of Brooks County, Ga. (and retired on account of amputation of leg), has been guilty of the above serious charge. I cannot produce evidence to convict him before a court-martial, but I am perfectly satisfied of his guilt.

Anderson went on to detail letters received by a private in Anderson’s Brigade which demonstrated the efforts to recruit the men from the ranks.

Longstreet’s solution for this matter?  Make this a punishable offense:

I would suggest, therefore, the publication of a general order warning all officers or persons authorized to raise local organizations against receiving such deserters or in anyway harboring them, and cautioning all such parties that they shall be punished for such crimes under the 22d and 23d Articles of War.

Longstreet, however, also touched upon another potential manpower drain:

Another growing evil seems to trouble us now in the shape of applications to raise negro companies, regiments, brigades, &c. The desire for promotion seems to have taken possession of our army, and it seems that nearly all of the officers and men think that they could gain a grade or two or more if allowed to go home. I presume that many may try to go merely because they get furloughs.

By Longstreet’s estimate, the effort to put more men in the ranks – a desperate attempt in this case considering what the Confederacy was founded upon – was going to work out in a counter-productive way.

No where in the correspondence did Lee or any other leader mention the matter of morale.  Some (shall I say jaded?) will interpret that to presume all was well in the ranks and morale remained high.  However, Lee never openly discussed the morale of the army in official correspondence that winter.  Indeed you’ll find most generals, then and now, avoid mention of that topic in written correspondence unless to say morale is in the positive measure.

With the discussion of what motivated the desertions, the least common denominator in all is that desertion is an individual act.  We might draw a lot of inferences by examination and speculation.  But reality is that deserters didn’t fill out a “where did we fail you?” survey as they leave the ranks.  Nor were deserters apt to openly discuss, at length, the reasons they walked away.

Regardless of the motivation, the hard truth is that desertions were rapidly eating away at the strength of the Confederate armies at the close of March 1865.  Maybe not at the 100 per day rate which prompted Lee’s report, but at least in significant numbers to cause alarm.  If the Confederate armies stood still, men deserted.  If the Confederate armies marched, men deserted.  Didn’t matter if the man was killed or wounded in combat, or deserted from the ranks, the loss was still a negative on the returns.  In the larger context, the Confederacy had but one card left in hand to play – its armies.  And the high desertion rates served to reduce the value of that card.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 46, Part III, Serial 97, pages 1353-1355.)